In the world of corporate intrigue, senior executives often make use of sharp elbows and are known occasionally to resort to backstabbing. Playing politics is an inevitable fact of business life. With this in mind, the Saïd Business School at Britain’s Oxford University recently kicked off an executive education programme based on William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the tale in which backstabbing is no euphemism.
In early November, more than a dozen senior executives gathered in Oxford for the three-day seminar, according to programme director Ron Emerson. Participants studied the leadership archetypes embodied in the play’s main characters—Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony—and discussed how each of them either served or undermined their goals. That helped them explore a bigger theme: the limitations of formal authority. As Emerson says, “Lateral, informal networks are becoming more important, so developing political intelligence is critical to getting things done.” Senior executives can be too set in their ways, “often reframing challenges in ways that suit their style,” he notes. “By taking them into Caesar, they lose those reference points and it generates a completely different dialogue. It’s very interactive, though we don’t go as far as stabbing people.”
The hardest lessons for many executives are recognising when to delegate authority and take advantage of “fluid, temporary coalitions” to deal with the host of conflicting agendas that exist in today’s complex corporations.
The £3,950 (€5,850) Julius Caesar seminar will be offered again next May and September. The programme is conducted in conjunction with Olivier Mythodrama, a consultancy run by theatre director Richard Olivier, son of renouned Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier (or Baron Olivier of Brighton, to give him the full honorific). The younger Olivier’s company runs other seminars revolving around the Bard’s work, including Henry V (“for all who seek or need to inspire those around them”), Macbeth (“courageous leaders aren’t afraid to take tough decisions”) and The Tempest (“now more than ever we need a generation of brave leaders who, like Prospero, are prepared to nurture their souls and step into leadership”).
If Shakespeare is too highbrow, there is another character from a famous novel that can provide inspiration: former philosophy professor Tom Morris has recently published If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World of the Wizards.